On the Power of Indirect Communication to Trigger Insights

By Adam J. Pearson

In his writings, the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard laid great stress on the importance of what he called ‘indirect communication‘ for helping people to achieve realizations or epiphanies, those profound insights that change the whole way we see our lives, our worlds, and ourselves.

Kierkegaard noted that people are often reluctant to change. Most people have developed finely-tuned ways of deflecting any criticism directed at them.  These may be personal attacks on the character of those who are criticizing them–e.g. “he’s dumb, what does he know?”–or ways of dismissing people provided by the ideologies that they hold dear–e.g. “he’s just a disbeliever, or a communist, or a capitalist, or a bourgeois fool, or a member of the wealthy 1%, etc.” When criticisms are direct, they are easy to deflect by means of these defense mechanisms.  Seeing this clearly as a result of how his own writings were received led Kierkegaard to the conclusion that direct communication simply fails to bring about lasting internal change.  It tends to bounce off the walls we put up rather than to break through them in any meaningful sense.

This realization, a product of Kierkegaard’s own experience as much as from his reflections on human behaviour, led Kierkegaard to favour indirect communication. While direct communication says what we mean plainly, indirect communication hides it in a way that allows the reader to realize it for themselves.  In this way, the reader cannot easily dismiss the idea or the criticism as coming from an outside source that can easily be written off; because it arises within themselves, they must take responsibility for it.  For this reason, Kierkegaard used many indirect types of communication to spread his ideas.  These included such things as using irony (saying one thing, but meaning another), pseudonyms (writing under the names and in the character of imaginary authors), and story-telling (hiding lessons in the occurrences that happen to a character). Other indirect tools that are available to us nowadays include the use of sound, music, image and film media to illustrate the insights we mean to trigger in our audience, or, in the language of literature, to ‘show, rather than to tell.’

I happen to agree with Kierkegaard that direct communication tends not to trigger realizations simply because I have seen how easy it is for people to confuse intellectual understanding and belief with existential realization.  It is one thing to understand an idea intellectually and quite another for that idea to hit home, to be felt in one’s gut, to shine with profound meaning for one’s own life and existence.  Direct communication tends to encourage the first type of intellectual understanding and does not tend to give rise to the inwardly-appropriated, existential type of understanding.  The task of the writer is to find a way to trigger the arising of this type of existential realization without directly expressing its content to the reader.  In other words, the challenge of the writer is to move from merely describing a realization to causing it to arise within the reader as if it had been their own idea. While direct communication has its place in many contexts of discourse, indirect communication offers powerful tools for achieving this end of moving readers rather than simply interesting them.

This idea of using indirect communication to trigger realizations is sometimes overlooked in today’s age of information, in which we have an overabundance of directly communicated information all around us, constantly bombarding us.  However, it was a mode of speaking that has long been used by great authors and thinkers throughout history.  Its value for triggering insights prompted Jesus to use parables, Proust to use fictional stories with truths gleaned from life, Zen masters to use koans, mystics like Rumi and Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite to use poetry, Homer and Virgil to use myths, George R. R. Martin to use fantasy, and Plato to use allegories to express their insights.

Plato is an important example here because he was well aware of the value of both direct communication–as we see in the Phaedo–and indirect communication, as we see in the myth within the Phaedrus, to express his ideas.  I also see value in both forms.  Direct communication speaks to the intellect; indirect communication speaks to the emotional center, the body, and the unconscious.   We are complex and many-levelled beings and, as such, require multiple forms of communication in order to speak to our whole being and not just to parts of it.  Alternating between the direct and the indirect modes offers us a useful way of addressing our whole existence rather than just a surface dimension of it.

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